Chinese National Opera & Dance Drama Theater
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
March 21, 2019
Converting a story about a legendary and revered person into a work of dance theater isn’t an easy task, as the facts that were the foundation for the legend have long since been overwhelmed by the legend’s power. Do you ignore details that might provide essential drama which might otherwise be lost? Do you treat the person as flawless, or disclose details that might blemish the image honed and polished over centuries? And are there cultural and / or political constraints that limit any flexibility?
I don’t know whether any of these considerations were taken into account in the creation of Princess Zhaojun, which had its New York premiere on Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater. What the Chinese National Opera and Dance Theater presents is Princess Zhaojun the legend, without blemishes or distracting back stories. Although I’ll comment in this review on certain likely historical information the inclusion of which might have made the presentation more authentically dramatic, I have no idea whether the dance’s creators considered, or were able to consider, any options beyond what they did.
In sum, for what it attempts to be, Princess Zhaojun is quite successful. There are few attempts here to add texture to characterizations – distractions from the accepted story-line do not exist, and there is no room to question. And, with some exceptions, the dances are a series of set scenes – like postcards that come to life. But Princess Zhaojun is an undeniably beautiful and vivid-looking production, with stunning costumes and lighting, accomplished choreography when considered in its cultural context, and its uplifting message is never subject to misinterpretation. Princess Zhaojun, one of the legendary “Four Beauties” of China whose beauty was said to cause birds to drop from the sky (other “Beauties” had similar appellations – e.g., causing fish to fall to the river bottom), is a heroine of China, who preserved peace and enabled the Chinese people, including the various ethnic groups within and around its borders, to flourish united.
Zhaojun’s mission, and her destiny, is something she and the audience know before any action begins. A Prologue shows writhing wounded, and bodies, called “conquest cadavers,” littering China’s northern border landscape, and depicts Zhaojun hearing their cries and vowing to do something about it. In the first Act (“Marriage Alliance”), Zhaojun is seen surrounded by other women while living a comfortable but solitary life in the palace, when a messenger arrives to announce that Emperor Yuan had offered Zhaojun in marriage to Huhanye Chanu, the monarch of the Xiangnu, an ethnic nation on the Han empire’s northern border. [In the program notes, the Emperor is said to have first offered his daughter, but she refused, and Zhaojun volunteered to take her place.] Later, at a banquet in honor of Huhanye, Xiangnu soldiers, clothed in ragged animal-skin costumes and looking like a regiment of Dothraki, and the Han, wearing rigid pseudo armor that made them look like imperial skeletons, parade before the two rulers and engage in semi-pretend fights to establish one side’s military mastery over the other. To calm the crowd, Emperor Yuan then announces the marriage alliance, Zhaojun and her entourage present before the two rulers, and Huhanye, who vaguely resembles Khal Drogo, is immediately enthralled by her beauty, declaring, visually, that she’s the moon of his life. [Spare your emails; Winter is Coming.]
In the Second Act (there’s no intermission), titled “Foreign Land,” Zhaojun and her faithful servant Xiang Xi make the slow pilgrimage across the frozen plains to the forbidding northern border (complete with wall – the Great Wall), under Huhanye’s protection – and gradually, despite his primitive appearance, he becomes her sun and stars. They stop to camp, and Zhaojun falls asleep and dreams (even in Chinese dance theater, there’s a Petipa dream scene) that she’s back home with her friends, the nymphs of her youth, but that war with the nomadic brute barbarians who carry them off and do unspeakable things to them, and who kill (in her dream) the respected Han General Wei Jiang, will continue unless she does something about it. She’s a vision in a vision in a vision.
The Wedding Scene (Third Act) follows, during which the Dothraki-like soldiers have a wild, primitive celebration (although they don’t force Zhaojun to eat a horse’s heart), but Huhanye’s son, nasty Prince Jujulei, who doesn’t like the idea of this marriage alliance, suddenly presents his trophy – General Wei Jiang, whom he’s captured and bagged like an animal. At Zhaojun’s insistence, Huhanye orders the general released, and decrees that cross-border raids will thereupon be strictly forbidden. In the Fourth Act (Peace), twenty years later, an epidemic has erupted causing Huhanye to become seriously ill. Zhaojun cares for him – not, apparently, by slaughtering his horse – but he dies anyway. Temporarily undone by grief (although Huhanye’s ghost seems to materialize regularly), she recovers to nurse the affected Xiangnu population to health, and even consents, per Xiangnu custom, to marry Huhanye’s successor – Prince Fujulei – to maintain peace between the two Han and the Xiangnu. In the Epilogue, now old and gray, Zhaojun is revered by all for her courage and tenacity, and Han and Xiangnu march together in her honor.
Well…. not exactly.
Normally I would not discuss the factual information that’s out there about Princess Zhaojun, and if nothing else, artistic license certainly permits Princess Zhaojun’s creators to recreate the story as they see fit, but it shows what might have been added to the narrative mix.
Based on information from various sources (via a Google search of her name), Wang Zhaojun was born Wang Qiang, roughly in the mid-first century B.C., to a prominent family in a south province of the Western Han Empire – although another reference asserts that this was a post-death reconstruction – and she was well-schooled in those aspects of sophistication essential for a concubine, including being an expert at the pipa, a pear-shaped plucked instrument similar to a lute. The custom at this time in the Han Empire was to have the emperor pick a concubine from each province, and Emperor Yuan selected Zhaojun. [Some sources say she was simply summoned to the palace, was kept as a lady in waiting, and never was selected to be one of the emperor’s consorts, the backstory being that the emperor never met his concubines in person – choosing his consorts from among them only by portrait, and the portrait painter painted Zhaojun in an unattractive way because she didn’t bribe him. So, presumably, Zhaojun was a virgin concubine.]
At this time, the northern boundaries of the Han Empire were subject to repeated raids by various tribes, including the Xiongnu. One source states that the Xiongnu, collectively known as the Hun (related to Attila?) in what is now Outer Mongolia, had an established empire in that area (antecedents of Genghis Khan?), that cross-border raids had occurred for millennia, and that a Han emperor a century earlier than Yuan had proposed marriage alliances to keep the peace. [Another states that at the time of Zhaojun, the Xiongnu had split into a number of states, each of which was subservient to the Han Empire, and the details of that game of thrones might make for a very good TV series.]. However powerful the Xiongnu may have been when the alliance with the Han began, a series of environmental calamities reduced the Xiongnu’s significance to that of a vassal state. In an effort to augment his status, so some accounts go, Huhanye proposed the marriage alliance to Emperor Yuan. Yuan agreed, and would have offered one of his daughters to be married to the Xiongnu monarch, but none of them wanted the honor of leaving the comfort of the palace. So, sight unseen, he picked Zhaojun … or Zhaojun volunteered because she was tired of being isolated in the palace basement. On first sight, Huhanye (who already had many other wives) fell madly in love with her – and Emperor Yuan, who had not previously seen Zhaojun’s flesh in the flesh, had that painter executed.
To Zhaojun’s surprise, she fell madly in love with Huhanye too – or she just learned to cope. She bore Huhanye, who already had many children by his other wives, at least one son. After Huhanye’s death a few years after their marriage, Zhaojun reportedly was aghast at the thought of marrying his son, that nasty Fujulei, but as that was the Xiongnu custom, and since the then Han emperor refused to allow her to return to civilization, she agreed to do it. She bore Huhanye’s son two daughters.
The subsequent legend of Zhaojun grew after her death, adding and deleting facts as the years passed.
Obviously, the facts about Zhaojun as they may have been discovered (reportedly based on contemporaneous accounts) are far more interesting, and potentially far more theatrically dramatic, than the “facts” embedded in the legend and related in the dance. And although I can’t criticize Princess Zhaojun’s libretto for blindly adhering to the legend (and maybe embellishing it a little), failing to include at least some of this remarkably interesting information, and instead artificially creating drama to provide what drama there is, renders the entire dance considerably more cardboard than it needed to be.
In any event, we take it as it is. Princess Zhaojun is nothing if not opulent. Not surprisingly, for a production from China, the costumes are extraordinary. Credited to Yang Donglin and Sun Aina, there is not one scene of groups of women in which they do not look resplendent with the look of silk (the Han), or celebratory velvet (the “candle dance” – yes, in a way remindful of La Bayadère – that opens the wedding scene), or simple cloth elegance (the Xiongnu). The men are less lyrically portrayed – they’re warriors, but the same care has been taken with their costumes. [Like the Capulets and Montagues, the Han and the Hun have “colors” – the Han wear blue and orange (they should perform at Mets games); the Xiongnu are costumed in “animal-hide” tan.] And unlike some contemporary dance productions where the lighting, extraordinary though it might be, draws attention to itself, the lighting in Princess Zhaojun never does – you don’t see the lights as objects that move up and down or change color, but as means to electrifyingly illuminate or bathe the stage. Designed by Ren Dongsheng (who apparently also designed the opulent looking sets), the lighting is used almost as another character at times: in one extraordinary scene, it’s as if the heavens open and a deity with piercing light penetrating from “eyes in the sky” looks down to illuminate, and silently comment on, isolated areas of the stage.
Aside from my quarrel with the one dimensionality of the characterizations and the story, even though that may be exactly what director Kong Dexin wanted, the choreography (credited to a committee, each member of which presumably oversaw the choreography for individual dances), seen through Western eyes, is – with exceptions – disappointing. Women generally shuffle across the stage with tiny forward steps that make them appear to glide on air (like the angels in “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’”), often posed with arms and torsos arched at a gentle “feminine” angle, and men who thrust and stump and then thrust and stump some more. For this reason, although each individual dance to one extent or another is different from another, as the scenes progress the women’s “folk dances” and the men’s martial combat mesh in the mind.
Having said that, the critical analysis here must be on recognizing that this dance must be seen through Chinese cultural eyes, not Western eyes. Its heritage – aside from the story’s specifics – is Asian. And in this context, the appearance of flatness, of uniformity, of relative unemotional detachment, of limited but exaggerated stylized movement, is not inappropriate. I would have preferred to have seen more variety within each dance, but it’s there – you just have to overlook the sense of sameness and of minimal movement variation, beautifully staged and executed as many of the dances involving the women most definitely are.
Those dances that are most memorable are those rare segments in which the leads, primarily Zhaojun and Huhanye, either dance solo or together. There is considerable beauty to the lyrical romantic choreography, with Zhaojun effectively melting into Huhanye’s arms as he receives her liquid body and effortlessly manipulates her, lifting and carrying her like a feather. There are no bravura “tricks” here. It’s all relatively low–key. But these dances are such a break from the cast of thousands pageantry that they stand – or dance – out. Also standing out is the one corps scene that is significantly different from the others – the “nymphs” in Zhaojun’s dream scene. None of them appear to be moving the same way as others, there’s an intentional sense of freedom consistent with Zhaojun’s memory of her happy youth, and the in-dream violence between these nymphs and the barbarian invaders (stylized – I doubt if anyone would find it offensive) is a visual shock.
Aside from the pageantry, there is one scene that is particularly noteworthy – and it contains little dancing. When General Wei Jiang and some of his soldiers are en route to the wedding, they get ambushed by Prince Fujulei and his men. Slowly, almost unnoticeably, Fujulei’s soldiers replace Wei Jiang’s soldiers – but Wei Jiang proceeds forward without noticing, followed closely behind by Fujulei as they exit the stage. The audience doesn’t see a battle, doesn’t see the capture, but what’s happening is obvious, and Wei Jiang is next seen in a bag at the wedding.
Multiple casts rotate in the lead roles. I saw what I presume is the first cast – Dou Shuaifang as Zhaojun, Zhu Lin as Huhanye, Guo Haifang played Fujulei, Yang Siyu was Wei Jiang, and Yu Yu played Xiang Xi. They, and the rest of the 41-member cast, performed magnificently. Dou Shuaifang did particularly fine work in a very one-dimensional role, especially acting virginally shy in her initial dance with Huhanye (and simply looking gorgeous in everything else – including carrying that pipa), and Zhu Lin’s Huhanye, in addition to being a capable and ardent partner, had the most acting to do, at times looking like Kal Drogo, at times – like when he first spies Zhaojun and could hardly contain himself – as if he’d just won the concubine lottery.
Legend or human, it’s undeniable that Princess Zhaojun is the embodiment of cross-cultural acceptance for the greater good. China as it is now known believes it owes its unity, at least in large part, to this woman who was a concubine, a queen, a sad and tragic figure, and a heroic one. And in a sense, when the Chinese celebrate the lunar New Year and parade through the streets within a multi-unit dragon that blends the occupants together to move as one, they implicitly honor Princess Zhaojun, the mother of Chinese dragons.